Innovative U.S. 36 Express Lanes Project Reduces Traffic Congestion by Offering Mobility Choices
Editor’s Note: The following article is one in a series of six profiles of winners of NCPPP’s 2017 National Public-Private Partnership Awards, which recognize organizations and individuals that have gone above and beyond to advance the concept and implementation of P3s across the country. The winners will be honored during P3Connect in Miami Beach in January.
If you asked David Spector which of the improvements made to U.S. 36 in Colorado have benefited the most travelers, you might expect him to pause and ponder because there are so many choices.
Would he mention the new walking, cycling or bus rapid transit (BRT) options on this 18-mile segment? Or would he single out the increased safety provided by a new diverging diamond interchange at a bridge that crosses U.S. 36? Maybe top billing would go to the ability of the state’s first active traffic management system, which monitors traffic flow and speed limits, to provide traveler information and improve incident analysis.
Although Spector is quick to draw attention to the benefits of all these features, there’s yet another, which he believes tops the list: the addition of a new tolled/high-occupancy vehicle express lane in each direction, which are designed to reduce traffic congestion and provide a reliable travel time between Boulder and Denver.
“Thanks to the improved traffic flow, the parent who has to travel during rush hour to pick up his or her child at daycare five days a week knows they’re going to get there on time,” said Spector, who, as director of Colorado’s High Performance Transportation Enterprise (HPTE), steered the project’s completion for its parent agency, the Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT).
The section of U.S. 36, which links Denver and Boulder and, in between, the rapidly growing cities of Louisville, Superior, Broomfield and Westminster, has long been a commuter’s nightmare, often reaching 90 percent of capacity at peak periods.
To address this issue, the state launched the improvement project to improve traffic flow and safety in 2012. The first phase consisted of a design-build contract to begin construction along the corridor. The second phase, which was completed in January 2016, combined with the first phase, is a $497 million, 50-year design, build, finance, operate and maintain P3 project conducted by Plenary Roads Denver, which consists of CDOT, HPTE, the Regional Transportation District, Ames Construction Inc./Granite Construction Company Joint Venture, HDR Engineering and Goldman Sachs. The consortium paid for a large percentage of the improvements and will cover its costs through toll payments it collects on the U.S. 36 and I-25 express lanes; HPTE sets the toll rates. In addition to the express lanes, the P3 portion of the project included:
- Replacing all existing pavement on U.S. 36 and widening the highway to accommodate 12-foot-wide inside and outside shoulders (which BRT buses would be permitted to use when lane traffic slows to below 35 mph);
- Improving the existing BRT system, including new stations, all of which have new electronic display signs, transit signal priority at intersections, bus pullouts and a pedestrian bridge;
- Building a diverging diamond interchange at the McCaslin bridge over U.S. 36 that routes traffic to the opposite side of the road, eliminating left turns that have to clear opposing traffic;
- Installing a separated commuter bike path along the entire corridor;
- Installing intelligent transportation systems to monitor tolling, transit, and to provide traveler information and incident management;
- Taking responsibility for operations, maintenance and rehabilitation for the managed lanes corridor from Denver to Boulder, including tolling operations and snow and ice control.
Since its completion in January 2016, the project has had several measures of success. “Drivers are seeing a 10-minute reduction in travel times — that’s not even in the express lanes — and bus ridership has increased by approximately 40 percent since BRT service was added,” said Spector.
The diverging diamond interchange, located in the Superior/Louisville area, also has had its desired effect of improving safety. Officials in Superior reported no crashes involving injuries since the interchange opened and a 36 percent decrease in crashes at the interchange during its first year of operation. About two crashes per month had been reported along the previous interchange configuration.
Spector also is proud that the project reflects the priorities of, and was directly influenced by, the residents in the cities it serves. Nevertheless, HPTE and CDOT learned some hard lessons about educating stakeholders about the particulars of P3 procurement. “We learned that following through on a policy of transparent and open communication can go a long way toward dispelling misconceptions and clearing up misunderstandings about new concepts like these,” he said. “It’s not enough to have local public officials on board. Their constituents have to understand as well.”
HPTE has taken those lessons and applied them to subsequent procurements, taking pains to educate residents about projects and about the P3 procurement method through public meetings and telephone town halls, which involve calling thousands of residents in an affected district to listen in on meetings and submit comments.
“The in-person town halls net about 200 people, but through the phone we can loop in more than 3,000. This approach has been very helpful in educating people about the P3 procurement approach, which many are leery about at first,” Spector said.
Residents responded by becoming directly — and beneficially — involved in the project. Stakeholders in Louisville and Superior proposed the construction of the diverging diamond interchange in their area; only 34 of these have been installed in the United States. The design was introduced in Springfield Mo., in 2009 and another one is in use in Grand Junction, Colo. Suggestions for the Denver-to-Boulder bike lane and the BRT lane came from residents as well.
“None of these features would have been part of the project without these stakeholders. They drove the discussion on all of them. I’m proud to say, we learned from them and they learned from us” said Spector.
However, the project was not without its challenges. Plenary had to work with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to obtain permitting to build near a floodplain. “The consortium also worked extensively with the E-470 Highway Authority, HPTE’s tolling services provider, to integrate its system into the existing tolling infrastructure,” said Christian Guevara, vice president of operations at the Plenary Group. “The need to keep two lanes of the highway open throughout construction was sometimes tricky as well,” he added.
“We’re using the lessons we learned during this project on our current Interstate 70 P3 project through northeast Denver, which is making the process of getting buy-in much smoother,” said Spector.
“Today, the U.S. 36 Express Lanes are working like a dream,” he added. “The road has been transformed from being a daily headache for commuters to an asset that really improves their day-to-day lives. That’s what’s really important to HPTE and to all of the partners who have worked on it.”
NCPPP is honoring the U.S. 36 Express Lanes Project with its Outstanding Service Project Award for its success in reducing traffic congestion, improving safety and improving multi-modal travel along this 18-mile corridor.